Meet Lochlan O'Neil, the creator of DashCon
"So the whole ball pit was my idea. I wanted a ball pit."
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Folks, I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that in many ways, the following interview is probably the story this newsletter was created to tell. A few weeks ago, Tiktok videos from Lochlan O’Neil ended up in the Garbage Day Discord. I reached out to O’Neil hoping she’d be a good person to talk to about DashCon. I wanted to do something special for the event’s seven-year anniversary this year and thought maybe she could give me some fun details about what the infamous failed fandom convention was like.
What I discovered over the course of my interview with O’Neil blew my mind. She wasn’t just an attendee, she created the Tumbl-Con blog, which would then be renamed DashCon. She was the original organizer. She ran all the social accounts. She was the Homestuck troll cosplayer passing around the brown paper bag asking for money. Guys, she’s the one that ordered the ball pit.
O’Neil is a 24-year-old costume designer who is now, as an adult, finally publicly talking about her time as the architect of the ill-fated Tumblr convention. This interview is long, but I really hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. I learned so much about one of the most iconic and defining events in internet history. Fun fact: The organizational structure of DashCon was modeled after a rabbit breeding convention.
The following has been edited slightly for pacing and clarity.
Okay, so I came across your Tiktok video about DashCon and it was sort of perfect timing. Because I was trying to figure out how to do a retrospective about DashCon for the seven-year anniversary this year. But I honestly didn’t know where to begin haha.
I started the blog!
Right ok haha so tell me about that.
So I got on Tumblr — it must have been 2012. I was in ninth grade. And my best friend down the street, she was like, “I have a Tumblr. That's where I post all of my One Direction fan fiction.” I was like, “well, that sounds stupid.” But at the time I was raising mice and rabbits and doing genetics projects and stuff. And my aunt is a photographer. And she was like, “okay, you can play around with my camera.” So I did. And that was taking pictures of my rabbits and my mice. And I was like, “you know what, I'm going to make a Tumblr blog just full of pictures of mice. And I'm going to post all about mouse genetics. And this will be great and everybody will love it.”
Nobody loved it. But as I was posting pictures of mice, I discovered that there were fandom aspects. Up until this point, I thought it was just a photography website. And so I see random stuff happening. And I'm like, “oh, my gosh, and I'm really big into anime at this point.” So I start reblogging things, I start following people. And then I discovered the tag function.
And long story short, I met my best friend on Tumblr. So we meet up and it's like, “oh, my gosh, this is the best thing that's happened to me in my life ever.” Because I was always pretty weird. I was going from homeschool to regular school and back. And, you know, to find somebody who I got along with. It was great. And so a couple months passed, and I think, “okay, well, you know, Tumblr is the best website in the world. If I met my best friend, I bet other people can meet their best friends on Tumblr, right?” I see a post that's like what if there was a Tumblr convention and all the fandoms could get together?
Ah I remember that post!
Yeah. I was like, “oh, my gosh, you know what? I can do this.” I was 15. I had been to three conventions. One of them was a rabbit convention, where I spoke about rabbit genetics. So my experience was zero. But I had a lot of enthusiasm. So I started the Tumblr blog.
And it was just Tumbl-Con. And I just started saying, “hey, guys, I'm going to have a Tumblr convention. If you want to come to my Tumblr convention, follow my blog and also join my staff.”
I want to make sure you understand I was 15. So this is going on, but I'm starting to put together committees. In my head, my idea of a convention is, you know, what I was seeing at these these rabbit shows. Each place had a different booth and different exhibitors, and they would put on sponsored panels. So in my mind, I thought, “well, okay, each fandom can come and they'll have their own fandom booth and they can have their own fandom merch and be their own committees.”
So if you look at the DashCon or Tumbl-Con lore there are different fandom committees. My thing was like, “okay, we're gonna have different committees and they’ll have have a booth. It'll be great.” So time goes on and people come and go and leave the blog and join the blog with different admins. I'm the only one who's kind of staying consistent. And I remember turning 16 and I would host — I guess it was Google Hangouts at the time or whatever was on Google Plus.
I think maybe 30 people must have cycled through.
This is an incredible to me. This is the idea that DashCon was largely dreamed up by a 15 year old and based on rabbit conventions is unbelievable.
It was called the ARBA — American rabbit Breeders Association. I was big into genetics. I got a letter of recommendation from Cornell because I was doing a lot more research. And it's just, like, I don't know, man.
So I've been on Tumblr since 2008. I'm currently 31. And I've had this conversation with a few people now about this. I feel like a large misunderstanding about Tumblr, especially at that period of time, was that it was full of teenagers, but nobody expected anyone was a teenager. It was full of young people who assumed that everyone else on the site was a serious adult person. And it turns out that it was it was literally just a website full of kids. And that's so amazing to me.
Exactly, exactly. And I think a big part of my problem was I had skipped two grades. So by the time I moved to Denver, when I was 16, I had skipped two grades. I was a senior in high school. So I was very, I mean, I'm still smart. But I was very smart at the time. And I knew that. But what I don't think I understood was that intelligence does not make up for any kind of emotional maturity or experience. So I thought that I could skate by on intelligence alone. And while that works when you're doing research, it does not work when you're putting conventions together.
So how much involvement did you have in the actual convention?
So by the time Tumbl-Con became DashCon, I was in charge of all of the social media. So Twitter, Facebook, I was making advertisements, I was doing all the analytics. I was going to the library and checking out books on social media marketing, figuring out how to get this information to the most amount of people as possible: “How can I make this go viral?”
Well, it did go viral. You did it.
Yeah, the monkey’s paw curled.
So in terms of scale — because you've kind of seen it from the side that not a lot of people ever got to see from — how popular was it before the ball pit dropped. In the lead up to this, how popular was DashCon?
Oh, my god, it was it was crazy popular. I had never experienced that much attention in my life. And the funny thing is, nobody really knew it was me.
We would all have Skype conversations, us all being the admins. And we would go through our question box or inbox. And we could never get through all the questions, but we would just go through and be like, “okay, I'm going to answer this question or I'm going to do a funny answer for this question. I'm going to add a GIF for this question.” And that's just that's just how it went.
Before the actual con we did in-person marketing at [Sherlock Holmes convention] 221B Con. So I went to that and that's where I met all of them in person for the first time. And this was just a couple months before the con and everything was fine. Looking back on it now, I do, maybe, notice that they shouldn't have taken us all to [restaurant] The Melting Pot and spent $700. But at the time, I was like, “this is great. I feel like a professional.”
Were there conversations about where the money was coming from? Or where it was going or? What kind of conversations I guess we're even being had at at that point?
At that point, I feel like everybody was so convinced that it was going to be a success that they had already put a deposit on the hotel for the next year in Indianapolis.
When did you notice things were going wrong?
I noticed things were going wrong probably the Thursday before the con.
We're all there a week beforehand and everything is fine. For me, things are weird, because I'm just sleeping a whole lot. And we don't know why. I'm diagnosed with narcolepsy now. So that's why I was asleep.
And you had just sort of started this for for fun, right? And then it's become this massive thing.
My school was counting it as a business internship. So I got high school credits and I got to graduate super early.
So on day one, is there still a hope that this can be turned around and be successful?
So when the con happens I don't notice anything wrong. I think, “okay, well, this is probably how it's always been at cons and I just didn't know.” Because they put me in “con ops” all alone. I had never worked at a con. I had no experience. I don't have the best social skills. I’m meant to be in a lab somewhere or, where I am now, in a sewing studio, not interacting with people. So I have people coming in yelling at me. I started noticing something was wrong.
I ran the cosplay contest on Friday and then when I changed into my Vriska cosplay — which is a Homestuck troll. And I went and I did the “Ask A Troll” panel. And [DashCon admin] Cain Hopkins was on the panel, as well. He was [Homestuck troll] Gamzee, I believe. And he left halfway through. He said “there was an issue on Alternia,” which was like the Homestuck planet.
Then [DashCon LLP owner] Roxanne Schwieterman poked her head in from the wings and called me over.
She basically showed me a thing from the hotel showing how much we owed them because there were not enough people to pay for the hotel and hotel realized that. I guess there had been a negotiation in place where they put down a down payment and then everything else would be from door sales. And everybody assumed that there would be more attendees and there weren't. So the hotel then demanded money. I was told by several people that it was because they didn't want us there. And now I think it's more that they knew that there weren't going to be enough people to pay that back.
So then she pulled me into the ballroom and I was crying by this point. So I went up on stage. Either [DashCon LLP owner Meg Eli] or Cain gave me like a brown paper, like a lunch bag. And they were like, “well, you're crying the most. So you're going to hold the bag and we're going to have them put money into the bag.”
So just to recap: you're 17 years old. You're crying. You don't know yet that you have narcolepsy. You’re dressed like a Homestuck troll and now you're basically being pushed around the convention center asking people for money so you guys don't get kicked out of this hotel?
I’m up on stage in front of every single attendee, all in that ballroom. In gray paint.
I'm so sorry. What did you tell your parents about all this before? You were alone, right?
My dad thought it was the funniest thing. My mom was like, “well, honey, you can get through anything you set your mind to.”
I mean, I guess if you can survive DashCon, you can survive anything.
I'm just like sobbing. It's probably the worst day of my life. And then I'm hoping I can go back to my room. But my room key doesn't work because I guess the hotel froze all of the rooms to make sure everything would be paid. An attendee let me into their room to pee. When I do finally get back into my room, I checked my phone. My inbox on Tumblr and on Twitter and on Facebook and on Instagram and everything is filled with people either telling me to kill myself or saying that they're going kill me.
Because you're the digital face of DashCon. You have all of the feeds. This is unbelievable.
And they even found my personal stuff.
They emailed me personally to say, “you need to hang yourself. We don't want you here. You should just hang yourself.”
How did you separate yourself from the convention? Did you stay for the whole thing? Did you like, did you go on the ball pit?
So the next day, I slept in until like one. And I put on a nice dress because I'm like, “you know what, at least my ball pit is going to be here.” So the whole ball pit was my idea. I wanted a ball pit. Because I saw a post on Tumblr that was like, “strangers, sit together and meet new people in a ball pit.” And I was like, “that's great. I love ball pits, they’re great enrichment for animals. I'm working on getting one for my raccoon. So they're great.” And I wanted one. So I thought we were going to have a giant, nice ball pit. And I said, “you know what? This is fine.” So I go downstairs. I walk into the room where the ball pit is supposed to be and I see the kiddie pool. And I just kind of saw it and I leave, and I go into ops. And I'm just like, I don't know, not even crying at this point. I just feel very defeated. And I'm like, “hey, what's going on with the ball pit? And I think [DashCon admin] Rox told me, “well, they gave us one that was not advertised on the site. But they said we can have an extra hour because it's not the right one.”
So I was like, “great.” And I finally get some lunch because I was not really given any breaks ever. So I'm like, I'm taking my Taco Bell, my nacho cheese, and I'm going to go sit in the ball pit and just wallow. So I did and there's a picture of me if you just Google “DashCon ball pit,” it’s the one that says “Welcome to DashCon” with the bouncy house in it and there's the ball pit filled with people. And I'm in there in my green dress and my tiara. (All the admins had tiaras.) So yeah, my tiara, my big nerdy glasses, just eating cheese dip. And then I think I fell asleep in there too, of course.
It was something The only good thing I can say for DashCon is that every person I met there was incredibly nice. They were all very, very friendly and very, very well behaved, like all the attendees.
So, first of all, I just, I gotta say, in all my time doing interviews about web culture, to meet the person responsible for the DashCon ball pit… this is pretty incredible. I mean, you sort of created one of the most iconic images in internet history. It's amazing, actually.
DashCon feels like it created a before-and-after moment for the internet. It was this instance where the people on the internet came together to meet in real life and it was so disastrous that it almost wiped out an entire type of fandom that really hasn't come back until basically right around now actually. It feels feel like there were so many good intentions and then it just spiraled out of control in this crazy way, but it does feel like the people who were involved like really wanted something nice to happen.
I was inspired because I met my best friend on Tumblr and we are still friends to this day. We talk every single day. But I feel like an asteroid. I feel like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. I was very, very guilty for years. I had to go to extensive therapy because I was like, “oh my god, I, Lochlan O'Neil, single-handedly destroyed fandom culture?”
Well, I think we can all thank you for getting rid of some of it, you know, like SuperWhoLock. I don't know if we needed that. But I think it is interesting because you were a teenager and you brought a bunch of other really enthusiastic young people together and then they all got a look at each other and got a look at the culture that they were a part of and they reacted kind of violently to it. But, ultimately, to me it also feels like it led to a better world for fans because people don't think that they can just throw something like this together anymore — obviously, Fyre Festival is a corollary here — but in terms of fandom stuff, people don't say, “we should just throw a fan convention” because after DashCon people understand now that this stuff is serious. And it matters. And it's a real business. And it's hard.
I think it makes people be a little bit more cautious now, a little bit more thoughtful with the things that they say and do and events they try to put on. Clearly, Fyre Festivals and Tanacons still happen. But there are probably a lot of conventions that didn't and for good reason. I also think that out of all of it, it did bring everybody together to laugh. Was that at me? Yes. But most people didn't know that it was me.
After the con ended, I packed my bags, I got on a plane on Sunday morning. So I was not there for the aftermath panel. I packed up and I got out of there. And I was still sorting through death threats and people telling me to kill myself on my way home.
I gave my iPad that had the twitter login to my partner at the time. And they took that account over and just started making troll posts. I did get to my house and my dad had the ball pit pictures zoomed up on the big screen TV with it circled on my face and an arrow pointing to it. So that was horrible. But for the first month, I was like, “you don't talk to me about DashCon, you don't ask me about DashCon. Don't look at me,” you know? And then, you know, I got to college and I'm like, “okay, well, I need to learn to laugh at myself.” And that's what I've spent the past several years doing.
So do you do you use Tumblr now?
Sometimes. Rarely. I'll go on maybe once a week, I mostly use it to look up reference images for costumes I'm making or I have a bunch of saved tutorials.
You’re a costume designer, you're cosplayer. How do you think DashCon has impacted your relationship with online fandom in online communities, if at all?
It made me a lot more cautious. Not so much around people, but around events. I will read every single contract I am given ever. Most people will not scroll through the terms and conditions. I will read all of the terms and conditions. I will make sure to save everything. I have backups of contracts. I have backups of photos and screenshots and just make sure that if something like this happens again that I'm gonna be okay. And I was okay.
You alluded to legal fallout. What was there any or…
I've had a bunch of emails from people on my personal email saying they were going to sue me. But I responded, “I'm 17.” So no, there wasn't.
I was very lucky. I was very lucky that I was 17. Yeah, I was very lucky that my name was not on anything. I am very lucky that I am a nobody.
The problem is I still do feel like I destroyed fandom space. Even if it was kind of cringy and maybe a bit problematic. I feel like I ruined it for everybody. I mean, I feel like maybe I should have gotten some sort of punishment.
I think this will be clear to anyone who reads this interview: You were a kid who came up with an idea for a Tumblr convention. And then the adults that worked with you didn't know what they were doing.
And in a way, I sort of feel like Tumblr’s story always ends in DashCon. If you’ve seen Loki, DashCon is a Nexus event. There is no getting around DashCon. And I think that someone else, probably a SuperWhoLock fan, would have dreamt up something similarly disastrous. I remember going to a Comic Con in 2013 and watching a group of teenage Homestuck trolls off to the side of the convention center doing their own—
Were they in a circle playing “spin the Faygo”?
Is that what that is?
Yes, that's what they do. They sit in a circle and they spin a bottle of Faygo and then like make out with each other and it's disgusting. Yes, I've not seen it since DashCon.
Wow! I've been making this joke for almost a decade about Homestuck trolls making out so hard that their face paint was rubbing off. I did not know that was a thing. And then they would get up and act out scenes from Homestuck or from fanfic. And I remember looking at that in 2013 and being like, “oh, that's weird.” And then a year later DashCon happened and I was like, “oh, yeah, okay, that's the logical end point there.” There were no adults in the room for any of this stuff. And the ones that were in the room weren't really acting like adults.
It's interesting that one of the earliest big instances of an internet event, becoming part of popular culture was DashCon and everything going forward — Fyre Fest, Tanacon, Adrian's kickback — they all sort of have this weird flavor of DashCon to them.
Well, I think it's because I proved that it could be done. You know, if I set my mind to something, I'm going to make it happen. Whether or not it's a good thing remains to be seen. But I feel like I proved that something people previously thought would be very hard to do or would be, you know, impossible, happened. And I think that because it happened, because it was so bad, people thought, “wait a minute, this was so easy for them to do something so bad. I bet I can do it better.” And then people from the internet just started getting together. And their only goal was to make sure it's not bad.
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***Typos in this email aren’t on purpose, but sometimes they happen***